My son had slept off, with the lights on and his biology book open. My wife quietly switched off the light and covered him with the bed sheet.
The pineal gland is situated right at the centre of the brain; it is from here that the process begins. A complex chemical named melatonin starts pouring out, initially with no apparent external effects. Slowly its level increases in the blood. The victim doesn’t know what’s going on. The core temperature starts dropping by a fraction of a degree at a time. He still looks smart, fit and jovial. An electroencephalogram (EEG) would have shown brain waves slowing. Gradually, muscle fatigue sets in, the respiratory rate changes, blood oxygen levels drop and finally cerebral blood flow decreases. Yawning becomes frequent and the inevitable happens. He falls asleep.
Decades back it was considered natural to succumb to it, without guilt. Just relax and accept it with humility. There was no reason not to go to sleep when you felt sleepy.
New demands on time
But times have changed. I have to submit that paper to the journal before Tuesday; I work late. My son has six more chapters to finish before his examination tomorrow, my daughter is waiting to check the number of ‘likes’ for her new art on Facebook, my dad is waiting for that phone call from my aunt in the U.S. where it will break dawn by midnight Indian time. Today’s hectic lifestyle ensures we have no time for anything beyond our daily routine. The only way to squeeze out some extra time is to cut down on sleep.
That’s how the need for treatment evolved. Initially it was just local therapy; ice-cold water over the face and hot water over the torso. These medieval-era methods did have good symptomatic effect. Surprisingly, even in 2014 people still practise such treatment and claim excellent results.
The modern era saw newer treatment modalities. The most popular one comprised brown granules imported from Brazil, mixed with a locally produced white liquid, boiled for a few minutes. But the empty coffee cup next to my sleeping son was proof that even such concoctions can fail.
Sleep is the human body’s mechanism to repair the daily damage caused to body and mind. From preventing oxidative damage, improving immunity, hastening wound healing, improving memory to preventing hair loss, good sleep has no substitute.
The World Association of Sleep Medicine (WASM) celebrates World Sleep Day on the third Friday of March every year (March 21 this year). The motto: restful sleep, easy breathing, healthy body.
But what about those six chapters? Is there a solution in sight?
Here is an idea. If we could put one half of the brain to sleep while the other half worked, we could do everything and yet get sleep. There would have been no waste of time. After a mandatory period of rest, all we need to do is to wake up the sleeping hemisphere of the brain and let the other half take rest.
In reality, some aquatic animals like Bottlenose dolphin, Beluga whale, porpoise and sea lion, birds such as swift, sparrow and chicken show evidence of such ‘uni-hemispherical’ sleep. This means one side of their brain can go to sleep while the other side remains wide awake. They have acquired this ability of lateralising sleep on to one side to avoid predators attacking them in sleep.
I am a strong believer in Darwin’s theory. The predator of entrance examination is likely to kick off this evolutionary ability of ‘uni-hemispherical’ sleep in our kids, not far away in the future.
And then the coffee majors will have a real problem in their cup.